This novel, while not the best place to begin your foray into Gissing, has to be one of the most deliciously bleak reading experiences of Victorian England I have experienced. The surroundings near Clerkenwell Green were as familiar to the author as its bone-weary factory workers and women worn haggard by serial pregnancies and round-the-clock domestic chores. In 1896, George Gissing was brought to a dilapidated room in Lambeth to view his wife's body. He barely recognized Nell after several years of separation, the effects of poverty, and possibly syphilis, reducing her to mere skin and bones. Within three weeks Gissing was constructing this novel with every sentiment of despair, muddy road, or illegal act to afford food for a family, taking place on his street within eyeshot.
The atmosphere is set early on with a description of the weather and I experienced it myself in Canterbury last year...'This way and that the lights were blurred into a misty radiance'. Not only is Gissing socially aware but my goodness he has a way with description. I digress.
Jane Snowden is eleven years-old when her mother dies, her father is off in parts unknown leaving her as good as orphaned. The vile Peckworths keep her from the workhouse but abuse her no end and run her ragged. The poor thing sleeps under the kitchen table; tormented at every turn by Clem, the Peckworths' daughter.
'What's gone with that sixpence I left on the dresser?'
Jane looked up in terror. She was worn almost to the last point of endurance by her day and night of labour and agitation. Her face was bloodless, her eyelids were swollen with the need of sleep.
'Sixpence! she faltered, 'I'm sure I haven't seen no sixpence, miss.'
'You haven't? Now, I've caught you at last. There's been nobody but you. Little thief! We'll see about this in the mornin', as' to-night you shall sleep int eh back-kitchen!'
The child gasped for breath. The terror of sudden death could not have exceeded that which rushed upon her heart when she was told that she must pass her night in the room where lay the coffin.
'An' you shan't have no candle, neither,' proceeded Clem, delighted with the effect she was producing.
One day an elderly man appears in town asking about a young girl by the last name of Snowden. It turns out to be Jane's grandfather, Michael, and she is liberated from her dire situation. The old man is loving but keeps a secret close to his vest. Taking the loyal and kind-hearted, Sidney Kirkwood, to his confidence he eventually confesses his hope of doing some good for the downtrodden in society with an inheritance but the reappearance of Jane's father may throw a spanner into his future plans.
Within yelling distance there are a few central families whose stories intertwine, a sort of Victorian Albert Square, if you will. One young lady's name made me smile over and over again - Penelope Candy, which was bastardized early on in life to be uttered as 'Pennyloaf'. Forget any hope of gaiety here though, the poor thing lies next to her new husband on their wedding night in the knowledge that her wedding ring will be pawned the next day. Another character, Clara Hewitt, struggles for a leading role on stage at the local theatre only to be purposely disfigured by a jealous actress. Living in the shadows while veiling her face, Clara's future is now even more uncertain. I learned something about the toll of poverty and the absence of social reform that shocked me a bit from a scene concerning Clara's younger sister.
'Come here, Amy,' she said after a moment's scrutiny.
'So you will keep doin' tht foolish thing! Very well, then, I shall have to speak to your father about it; I'm not goin' to see you make yourself ill and do nothing to prevent you.'
Amy, now a girl of eleven, affected much indignation.
'Why, I haven't touched a drop, Mrs Eagles!'
'Now, now, now, now, now! Why, your lips are shrivelled up like a bit of o' dried orange-peel! You're a silly girl, that's what you are!'
Of late Amy Hewitt had become the victim of a singular propensity; whenever she could obtain vinegar, she drank it as a toper does spirits. Inadequate nourishment, and especially an unsatisfied palate, frequently have this result in female children of the poor; it is an anticipation of what will befall then as soon as they find their way to the public-house.'
And that passage shows more clearly than anything what the purpose of this novel was to the author. He tells it exactly like it is and why it is unacceptable. There is absolutely no window dressing within these pages and if you're put off by that then fine, but I found this novel to be a stunning piece of work. It is a Victorian docu/drama that isn't about characters rising from rags to riches but rather that some of them just might achieve a place near the top of their own social status. It is about the dream within a family that a son should find employment which requires a white paper collar - the ideal symbol of success within this sphere. Sadly, more often than not the reality is so much less and the author finds it frustrating.
In one of the final pages a character delivers a passionate speech that clearly states Gissing's thoughts on the state of people living within the 'nether world' and those in the upper classes...
'Mustn't all of us who are poor stand together and help one another? We have to fight against the rich world that's always crushing us down, down -- whether it means to or not. Those people enjoy their lives. Well, I shall find my enjoyment in defying them to make me despair!'
This was the third novel I have read by George Gissing, The Odd Women and New Grub Street being the other two, and have immensely enjoyed each one. Highly recommended!